I spent a lot of my childhood with my grandparents. One of the movies that we watched often next to the warm fire (in addition to Sun Valley Serenade) was Little Miss Broadway (1938). I get nostalgic whenever I hear songs from these older films; but aside from this, I find this second film to be instructive.
It's about an orphan who is temporarily adopted by show business people, but the owner of the hotel where they live doesn't like these people and wants the girl to be returned to the orphanage. In this movie, little Shirley Temple sings this song:
Don't you be a grumpy
When the road gets bumpy
(Smile and be happy!)
Your troubles can't be
As bad as all that
When you're sad as all that
No one loves you
Don't you be a mourner
Brighten up that corner
Our friends over at Mockingbird in Virginia recently highlighted the optimism of Millennials (my generation) and the pessimism of the Silent Generation (my grandparents) in their book, Law and Gospel: A Theology for Sinners (and Saints) [Mockingbird Ministries, April 2015].
Today, more than ever, we believe in our own inherent giddy-up. A recent poll showed that around 96% of people within the millennial generation are sure that they will get where they want to be in life. In 1950, a similar poll showed that only 12% of the same age group agreed.
As Forbes confirms, Eighty percent of millennials think that they will be as well or better off than their parents, but more than half are still living paycheck to paycheck.
But here’s the thing: this “giddy-up” optimism was present, at least in musicals like Little Miss Broadway, back in 1938! It seems that millennials aren’t alone in waiting expectantly for a better and brighter future—this is a condition of this present evil age, and it marks Silents and Millennials alike! Self-help prescriptions to “be optimistic” when you’re feeling down, “smile!” when you’re feeling sad, and “turn that frown upside down” in the end do not help us to escape reality.
If we are not loved, a smile won’t trick us into feeling loved. We know better. Books about positive thinking—though cheerful—cannot help us face all of the negative experiences and circumstances that befall us. Sometimes life is just hard, and we need someone to remind us of this reality and tell us that it’s okay to feel sad. We don’t have to smile all of the time. Sometimes, God wants us to cry.
That may sound shocking—why would God want us to cry? Doesn’t God want us to be happy? He does, but he is bringing about eternal glory through suffering. That’s exactly what he did when he had his only begotten and beloved Son, Jesus Christ, go all the way to the cross. Jesus had to go to his death before he could hold out to us eternal life.
I’m reminded of the Psalms and how they so powerfully and persuasively capture the array of human experience—the ups and the downs, the frowns and the smiles. Every kind of human experience can be found on the pages of the Psalms—God is telling us something. He is reminding us, as the Bible says, that there is “a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance” (Eccles. 3:4). Pessimism has a rightful place next to optimism in the world in which we live. This is because, as C.S. Lewis once wrote:
If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.
When we are grumpy or mourning, and whenever we are unloved, it’s okay to recognize this plight of our messed-up world. If we ourselves are not orphans like Shirley Temple in Little Miss Broadway, we at least know there are orphans out there. Suffering, pain, sadness, and evil certainly characterize so much of the world that we see around us.
But pessimism can help us look forward to the better, brighter future that we do in fact have waiting up ahead for us—not in a better job, a slimmer, toned, or more muscular body, a higher-paying salary, or more Twitter followers—but in the world to come. God is making all things new, and he is bringing us into a world where there will be no more tears, no more pain, no more pessimism—just smiles.
This is a realistic optimism as well—honest in a way pessimism and ordinary optimism can’t be. We won’t be able to be grumpy because God has brightened up our dark corners through the face of Jesus Christ. He has exchanged our weeping for laughing. Wherever and whenever we have been unloved, God has sent his Son into those very places to show us that he loves us (John 3:16).
So, I guess little Shirley was right all along—we can be optimistic and smile after all. At least, we can do this in light of the glorious life that is promised to all of those who look to Jesus Christ by faith. He is the light at the end of our darkest tunnels; so smile :).